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James R. Stout

The Blue Hydrangea

            As the story goes, my great-grandmother would go and visit her two daughters from time to time. She was a widow of five years when she made one of these visits. My grandmother and grandfather drove her over to one of her daughter’s homes about 75 miles away. This was likely quite an interesting drive given the three of them were scrunched together in the cab of my grandparent’s 1958 Chevrolet pick-up truck. It had no air conditioning other than what my grandfather referred to as his “240” AC. That would be two windows down at 40 mph. I have no doubt that there was much complaining by the ladies as they would have been concerned with their hair and their hats.

            While they were all visiting for the day, drinking mint julips, and nibbling on homemade sugar cookies, my great-grandmother was enthralled with the decorations and amenities of her daughter’s home. I remember hearing about the louvered windows with exterior awnings painted to compliment the color of the house and the fine china that my great-aunt had. She even had a custom-made china cabinet. So far as my great-grandmother was concerned, her daughter had done well when she married my great-uncle Joe. Her other daughter paled in comparison given she lived to fish at every opportunity and her husband was a failure in my great-grandma’s eyes. But they lived in an old house near a large creek that supplied hours of fishing enjoyment for my great-aunt Ruby.

            At one point in the visit they all went outside so that my great-aunt Omi could show her visitors her great variety of blooming bushes and well-manicured trees. One of these in particular caught my great-grandmother’s eye immediately. She had never seen a blue-hydrangea bush. The ones that she had seen and had at her own home were red and sometimes a pinkish color. Well, Great-grandma was amazed at the blue hydrangea. My grandfather asked if he could make a cutting from the bush and said that he would be glad to take it back and plant it in Great-grandma’s flowerbed. Omi was more than happy to allow this. So, before they left to go back home, Grandpa made a cutting. I am decidedly not a horticulturist and I have no idea how he managed to do this so that the cutting would survive until he could plant it the next morning, but Grandpa knew how and that’s what mattered. They said their goodbyes for the day and made their trip back home.

            The next morning my grandfather transplanted the cutting into Great-grandma’s flowerbed. My great-grandmother’s home did not have a well that produced water sufficiently and they relied on a cistern to catch rainwater in order to have water to bathe, boil for cooking, and to water her flowerbed. The well water was used for drinking water but having experienced the delightfully strong sulfur odor that accompanied the water, I rarely was thirsty enough to drink that water. Every morning my Great-grandmother would fill a bucket with water from the cistern and water the cutting. She knew that it would be another year before she saw those wonderful blue blooms, but it didn’t stop her from caring for the plant. By early fall the plant had taken root and was growing strong enough to no longer need watering other than the rainwater that was naturally delivered in abundance that fall. When the first freeze came along, she wrapped that bush in a wool blanket. She wasn’t taking any chances that it would freeze to death. I was told that she had to do that several times in the winter of 1959.

            April was about to turn into May and my great-grandmother checked her blue hydrangea bush every day. By mid-May buds started to appear and she was excited knowing she would soon have the only blue hydrangea bush in her little farming community. Then one day in late May she went outside to check the bush and there it was. A bloom. A nice red bloom. She thought at first that maybe the blooms started out red and then as they fully opened became blue. But that wasn’t the case. Before long she had a beautiful hydrangea that was full of red blooms. Not a blue bloom in sight. How could this be?

            Well, at first, she queried my grandfather as to if he might have taken the cutting from the wrong bush. But he assured her that was not the case. Despite the beautiful young hydrangea bush with bright red blooms garnering praise from friends who stopped by, Great-grandma was most definitely disappointed. Well, my grandfather being in possession of not one, but two green thumbs, decided to research the issue. He had grown all kinds of crops through the years and knew something about soil and how it could make a big difference in what or if something would grow in it. He learned this through trial and error mostly. He had a patch for growing peanuts, a pasture best for corn, a very special acre that produced a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, and his knowledge of plants was great. He used to walk with me down the country road and point out plants and trees and explain their uses. There was a tree (I wish I had paid better attention) that he said that if you had a tooth ache, then you should shave off a slice of the bark, clean it of the hard part and then roll it into a small ball. You then put that ball in your mouth next to the tooth that was hurting and before long it wasn’t hurting. He showed me a bodark tree once and said that while the wood was extremely hard to cut, it was the best tree for making fence posts. Some of the bodark fence posts that he cut 70 or 80 years ago are still on the farm and still in use. He also said that despite the fruit of these trees not being edible per se’, you could dig out the seeds and eat them in a pinch. We always called the fruit of a bodark “horse-apples” because of their size.

            So, Grandpa went to the big library in Huntsville to do some research on the hydrangea situation. It didn’t take him long to know what the problem was. The higher the PH level in the soil (higher alkaline content) the blooms will be pink or red. The lower the PH level (a higher acidic level containing a stronger concentration of aluminum with a PH of under 6) the blooms turn purple and then blue. Well, Grandpa knew how he could fix this little issue. He went to the feed and garden supply store and purchased a bag of aluminum sulphate. He then dug up the plant and added this into the mix. From what I was told, the bush never wilted or had a problem with this operation. Within a few weeks the blooms started to turn violet, but the bush only blooms for so long in a year and Great-grandma would have to wait another year to see if she would have blue hydrangea blooms.

            Time passed and life continued onward. Finally, in late May of 1960 the much larger than it had been a year before bush, started to bloom. My great-grandmother was brought to tears when she saw the first blue blooms. Before long she had the bush heard round the world! Well, round the community at least. People came from 5 or 10 miles away just to drive by and see the blue hydrangea bush. Great-grandma would proudly stand next to the bush if someone wanted a picture of the blue blooms. Grandpa, always a subdued and quiet man, was just pleased that his mother was happy.

            As I think back on that story, I think of how simple things were then. That story could have been a script from an episode of The Waltons. Great-grandma’s health was failing though. After all, in 1960 she was already 82. Starting in 1964 she had to move into a “nursing home”. She would pass away in December of 1966. Sadly, so much was going on at the time that nobody thought to cover the bushes when a “blue-northern” blew through on Christmas of that year with a hard freeze. Great-grandma died on December 28, 1966 and her blue hydrangea bush went with her.

            It’s not uncommon to see blue hydrangeas these days. People have learned how to cultivate them and prepare the soil to ensure the blooms are of the desired color. And, every time that I see a hydrangea bush with blue or purple blooms I think of my great-grandmother and I can see her in my mind’s eye wearing a big shady hat and her moo-moo from Hawaii that had been a gift from Aunt Omi standing outside beside that hydrangea. I may have only been 11-years-old when she died, but I have fond memories of spending time with her. Isn’t it interesting how you get to missing someone that you haven’t seen in more than 50 years?

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